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EM Wood - The Question of Market Dependence

EM Wood - The Question of Market Dependence

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03/02/2014

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50
Ellen Meiksins Wood
 
 Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 2002, pp. 5087.
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Henry Bernstein and Terence J. Byres 2002.
SYMPOSIUM
The Question of Market Dependence
ELLEN MEIKSINS WOOD
Capitalism is a system of social-property relations in which survival andsocialreproduction are dependent on the market; a system that is, therefore, drivenby the imperatives of competition and a relentless drive to improve the forces of production. This article explores the nature of that market dependence and the specific historical conditions in which it emerged. In debate with Robert Brenner’s recent article in this journal (vol. 1, no. 2) about the early develop-ment of capitalism in the Low Countries, it is suggested that, while theDutchRepublic was a highly developed commercial society, it seems to have lacked the specific conditions that made market dependence a basic propertyrelation,as it was in early modern English agrarian capitalism. The differencesbetweenDutch and English patterns of economic development reflect somefundamentaldifferences between commercial and capitalist societies.Keywords 
:
 
capitalism, market, commerce, Dutch Republic, EnglandIn a recent issue of this journal, Robert Brenner (2001) made a powerful case forthe early development of capitalism in parts of the Low Countries. Building onhis groundbreaking work on England, he argued that, for different reasons andindifferent ways, agricultural producers in the maritime Northern Netherlandsweresubjected to economic imperatives that impelled their development in a capitalistdirection. The argument has major implications for our understanding of capital-ism in general, and that is the basis on which I want to respond to it here. If, asBrenner has argued, the
differentia specifica
of capitalism is the market dependenceof economic actors, much depends on exactly what market dependence means.
†Robert Brenner will respond to the following articles in a forthcoming issue of the journal.Ellen Meiksins Wood, Department of Political Science, York University, 4700 Keele Street,Toronto,Canada, M3J 1PR. e-mail: ewood@yorku.caI want to thank George Comninel for his, as usual, extremely helpful comments and suggestions,and for innumerable fruitful discussions about these and related issues. Thanks also to Terry Byresforhis very useful and thought-provoking observations. As always, I am also grateful to Neal Wood, forhis comments and encouragement. But I owe special thanks to Bob Brenner, with whom I have beendiscussing this essay from the start. The final product is the result of an ongoing debate between us,after he read the original draft, and he intends to respond to it in print. Our objective is to conductnot the customary academic slanging match, but a constructive conversation between basically like-minded friends, in the hope of clarifying things for ourselves and anyone else who might beinterested.
 
The Question of Market Dependence
51In his discussion of the Low Countries, Brenner was again elaborating thefundamental principle that was also at the heart of his recent important analysisof the global economy. Capitalism, he wrote in that controversial text, is asystemcharacterized by ‘relentless and systematic development of the productive forces’,because it is ‘a system of social-property relations in which economic units –unlike those in previous historical epochs – must depend on the market foreverything they need and are unable to secure income by extra-economiccoercion...’ (Brenner 1998, 10).In his historical work, Brenner has shown how the systemic pressures deriv-ing from market dependence, the imperatives that have driven the developmentof capitalism, operated before, and as a precondition for, the proletarianization of the workforce. Economic units could be market dependent – that is, separatedfrom non-market access to the means of their self-reproduction – without beingcompletely propertyless and even without employing propertyless wagelabourers.This early form of market dependence, which subjected producers to the im-peratives of competition and profit-maximization, set in train thedevelopmentof capitalism, and with it mass dispossession and the mature relation betweencapital and labour. In his earlier work, Brenner explained the nature of marketdependence in English agrarian capitalism, and he has now offered an account of a different path to market dependence in the Low Countries.One implication of Brenner’s argument on the nature of market dependenceas in a sense independent of, and prior to, the class relation between capital andlabour has been his emphasis, especially in his recent account of thecontemporaryglobal economy, on imperatives and contradictions rooted in the ‘horizontal’relations among capitals, the relations of competition. This emphasis has arousedmuch hostility among other Marxists. More particularly, Brenner’s critics havereacted strongly against a conception of capitalism that, in their view, displacesthe class relation between capital and labour as the defining feature of the system,giving pride of place to ‘horizontal’ relations.This seems to me a complete misreading of what Brenner is about, for manyreasons that I cannot elaborate here.
1
For our purposes here, it is enough toemphasize two points: first, that Brenner shows how the market itself can con-stitute a social-property relation (a point to which I shall return); and second,that the class relation between capital and labour is what it is – and unique amongclass systems – precisely because its constitutive units are market dependent andbecause the relation between capital and labour, unlike any other system of classexploitation, is mediated by the market. Because the market here is not simplya mechanism of circulation but the medium of basic social-property relations, itcarries with it the imperatives of competition, profit-maximization andincreasinglabour productivity.It is not my intention to retreat from my strong support for Brenner’s basicargument about market dependence. On the contrary, the questions I intend toraise here have to do with following that concept to its logical conclusions. If 
1
For more on this, see my ‘Horizontal Relations: A Note on Brenner’s Heresy’ (Wood 1999).
 
52
Ellen Meiksins Wood
anything, these questions may suggest that, in his analysis of economic develop-ment in the Low Countries, he has perhaps departed from, or at least not ela-borated enough, his own insights on the nature and consequences of marketdependence as a social-property relation.BRENNER ON MARKET DEPENDENCE IN THE NETHERLANDSWe may start with a brief summary of Brenner’s argument on the Low Coun-tries, or specifically on the maritime Northern Netherlands, which apparentlyunderwent some kind of early capitalist development.Brenner is clearly working backwards from what appear to be some funda-mental similarities between this region of the Low Countries and England in thelate seventeenth century. By that time, both were experiencing, he suggests,a process of economic development in which, among other things, adifferentiationwas taking place between producers who successfully competed in the market byspecializing, and less successful farmers who lost their land and were obliged toseek non-agricultural employment.It is, argues Brenner, an indication of how deeply ingrained capitalist practiceswere in the early modern period that, in the general European crisis of theseventeenth century, when agricultural prices collapsed, Dutch landlords reactedin much the same way as their English counterparts – and differently fromlandlords elsewhere, notably in France – subsidizing their tenants by loweringrentsand/or accepting arrears and undertaking capital investments, instead ofexpellingthem in favour of land-hungry peasants. The subsequent differences between thetwo cases – the halt in Dutch development while England continued in itspro-cess of self-sustaining growth, giving rise to industrial capitalism – were not aconsequence of any fundamental differences in the internal dynamics of the twoeconomies but rather a result of Dutch dependence on an external market, aEuro-pean market operating on different, non-capitalist principles and subject to thelimits of a fundamentally feudal economy.Brenner sets out to explain how apparently similar processes of capitalistdevelopment could have been generated in substantially different ways, how themaritime Northern Netherlands, coming from a different starting point, was,before hitting the buffers, approaching the same destination as English agrariancapitalism. He describes a situation in which producers were unable to producetheir own means of survival because of their region’s ecological degradation.They therefore had to depend on the market for food grain. In other words, theywere dependent on the market for their ‘inputs’, or for the most basicconditions,indeed for the ‘full costs’, of their own reproduction.In order to obtain the means of acquiring grain in the market, they wereobligedto produce other commodities for exchange and, to a substantial degree, toproduce them for export. They therefore had ‘to find products that they couldsuccessfully sell on the market’. Switching from grain production to cattle breedingand dairy farming, they did find a market for their output, especially in largetownsin nearby Brabant and Flanders, as well as supplying summer grains for the

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